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Preventing, er, Countering Violent Extremism comes to America: Part Four – Collective Identity as a foundation


Thanks for staying with me as I am unfolding my argument (Parts OneTwo, andThree). This is the fourth post in a series about the coming Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy in the US.  I launched into this because I am worried about some fundamental misunderstandings I have seen about radicalization and movement participation. I am also concerned that US policymakers aren’t as aware of the flaws of the UK’s Preventing Violent Extremism strategy as they should be (next post is on the “sins” of Prevent).

As I have argued in previous posts, the frustration-aggression and grievance obsessed models that policymakers and others are applying are woefully incomplete lenses through which to understand why people participate in movements and are driven to action.

In this post, I point to collective identity as the foundation of what has come to be called radicalization.  Islamist movements from al-Qaeda to the Muslim Brotherhood work hard to foster a sense of collective identity among Muslims worldwide. This identity is not simply “I am a Muslim” – 1.57 billion people hold that identity. It goes beyond that, tying into a network of shared meaning. I call it an ummah-oriented Muslim activist identity.  It involves membership in the ummah, which becomes the most salient source of identity and loyalty. Islam (or an interpretation of it) becomes the highest source of legitimacy for thoughts and actions from the mundane to the profound. It is an activist identity that fosters affective bonds between all members of the ummah and encourages a compulsion to some sort of organized action (some good, some bad, some neither – but let’s try to keep moral judgments out of this as long as we can) on its behalf – whether that be donating to an Islamic charity for earthquake victims in Kashmir, protesting outside of an Israeli embassy, funnelling supplies to the mujahideen, or strapping explosives to your crotch and boarding a plane bound for Detroit.

This is not to imply that collective identity is inherently threatening. It is a social phenomenon that every person on the planet experiences in one way or another. Patriotism (otherwise known as nationalism) is a potent example of collective identity.

Collective identity is a necessary foundation for mobilizing people to action – for any cause.  Unlike grievance, alienation, relative deprivation, etc a great deal of social science research has unambiguously found that that collective identity is an explanatory variable or an “intervening causal mechanism.”

Thus, when shaping policy on counter-radicalization, it would be wise to avoid designing and funding programs that encourage and foster an ummah-oriented Muslim activist identity among Muslim-American youth.  This mistake has been made in a big way by our British friends and it is one of the cardinal sins of Prevent.

Beyond that, grasping the concept of collective identity will allow policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders to better understand (1) why and how people are hostile towards out-groups, (2) what shapes peoples’ interpretations of justice and injustice, (3) why some people are more willing to engage in collective action or individual action on behalf of a collective, and more.

Collective identity can be defined as 

[A]n individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution.  It is a perception of a shared status or relation, which may be imagined rather than experienced directly, and it is distinct from personal identities, although it may form part of a personal identity.

More simply, it is a sense of “we-ness” with distinct boundaries. It is not just what “we” are; it is what “we” are not. Collective identity mediates the relationship between the society and the world, and the individual and society. It is at the crux of the relationship between objective and subjective realities. We have numerous collective identities simultaneously – but one collective identity is usually more salient than the others, focusing one’s attention on issues that impact the group one believes he/she is a part of, often at the expense of individual concerns.

All social movements seek to enlarge the sense of collective identity for mobilization. Studies have found that out-group hatred and discrimination is not difficult to activate or generate “even absent direct conflict and prior hostility.” Such is the power of collective identity. Thus, generating a collective identity among a constituency is the important task facing social movements. Collective identity also serves five psychological functions for the individual: belonging, distinctiveness, respect, understanding/meaning, and agency. These functions help explain why grievances are seen as such and through what prism or scripts they are understood. Identity often precedes grievance. This explains in part, for example, why a British-Pakistani teenager from Leeds feels tied to Palestinian suffering.

Gamson explains that collective identity “is central in understanding people’s willingness to invest emotionally in the fate of some emergent collective entity and take personal risks on its behalf.” He continues:

It has the consequences for how people understand the sociocultural system they are attempting to change and which strategies and organizational forms they will see as appropriate. Groups that have achieved a successful integration of personal and collective identity will have an easier time doing what it takes to launch many kinds of collective action.

Melluci argues: “The propensity of an individual to become involved in collective action is thus tied to the differential capacity to define an identity.”

Collective identity helps overcome the free rider dilemma, as “high levels of group identification increase the costs of defection and the benefits of cooperation.” Drawing on Melluci’s concept of “networks of shared meaning,” Wiktorowicz explains:

[R]adical Islamic activists promote a set of values and identities that challenge dominant cultural codes. In doing so, they seek to create a common community of “true believers” tied together through a shared interpretation of Islam typically characterized by high levels of tension with common religious understandings. Activist proselytizing thus focuses on teaching Muslims (and even non-Muslims) about the deviance of mainstream interpretations while offering the movement’s own understanding as definitive. The resulting network of shared meaning is the basis of a common identity that frequently involves commands to risky activism in the name of God.

This is a very broad overview of a huge body of literature and I am at a 1,000 words so my conclusion is abrupt. As such, I had to pass over some things, but I think I made the case that collective identity is a – if not the – foundation for any process leading to collective action or action on behalf of a collective.